Microsoft finally gets anti-malware right

Review: Farewell, old friend. After years of relying on the excellent AVG Free antivirus package, I’ve finally replaced it – with Microsoft’s new Security Essentials.

MS’ previous attempts at a paid for anti-malware service were greeted with minimal enthusiasm, but the new, no-cost, core anti-malware service launched this week looks set to fare rather better if initial experience is anything to go by.

Security Essentials provides protection against rootkits, viruses and spyware and is independently certified by West Coast Labs, and requires no registration, trials or renewals and can be downloaded directly from Microsoft here. The software comes with a dynamic signature service that checks programs against an up-to-date database of virus definitions, which means users stay protected by the most current virus definitions available without having to wait for the next scheduled download.

“Consumers have told us that they want the protection of real-time security software but we know that too many are either unwilling or unable to pay for it, and so end up unprotected,” says Amy Barzdukas, general manager for consumer security at Microsoft. “With Microsoft Security Essentials, consumers can get high-quality protection that is easy to get and easy to use – and it won’t get in their way.”

Security Essentials, previously known by the codename Morro, works under Windows XP SP2 or SP3, Vista and Windows 7 – including XP mode – on both x86 and x64 PCs. It’s available in eight languages and 19 countries. It’s a spiffed-up version of the unloved Live OneCare which had the plug pulled back in June. It could be viewed as a superset of the earlier Defender anti-malware package, which gets deactivated automatically when you download the new fully-featured utility.

Incidentally, this could be a tad more elegant as clicking on the download now button on the MS site takes you to the 32 bit version, which then refuses to install on Win7 64 bit. You need to go back to the download site and do a bit of sniffing around before you eventually find the correct version. Would a separate button for 64 bit be too much to ask? Or maybe even have the installer check your OS version and automagically download the correct version.

You do need to uninstall any existing antivirus package before downloading Security Essentials as it’s a good plan to do a system restart to make sure any running services are stopped before proceeding. And you will have to download MSE – although it’s free, you can just imagine the wailing and gnashing of teeth from the likes of Symantec, Kaspersky Labs and the EU if it came bundled with Windows 7.

MS says it runs ‘quietly in the background’ and won’t clobber even creaky old machines. Certainly on this 4GB Core 2 Duo box running Win 7, you don’t even notice it’s there. The minimum system requirement for running it under XP is a 500MHz CPU and 1GB of RAM, while under Windows 7, the memory footprint is a commendably-compact 4MB

A glance at the screenshots shows the UI is pretty uncluttered and elegant while offering excellent customization choices. Downloading updates is pretty rapid considering the world and his dog will all be doing that right now, so it would appear that Microsoft has thrown adequate server capacity behind the service.

So far so good, is the initial verdict. It looks as if MS has eventually got it right and will be causing purveyors of paid-for anti-malware services some sleepless nights.

If you’re using a free antivirus package at the moment, you have nothing to lose by trying MSE and if you’re paying for your protection, it could save you money.